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Iraq War Looms Large Over 2016 Vice Presidential Debate

Tim Kaine and Mike Pence sparred repeatedly over the legacy of the Iraq War during the Vice Presidential Debate on Tuesday night.
Image: Vice Presidential Debate Between Gov. Mike Pence And Sen. Tim Kaine
FARMVILLE, VA - OCTOBER 04: Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine (L) speaks as Republican vice presidential nominee Mike Pence (R) and moderator Elaine Quijano (C) listen during the Vice Presidential Debate at Longwood University on October 4, 2016 in Farmville, Virginia. This is the second of four debates during the presidential election season and the only debate between the vice presidential candidates. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)Mark Wilson / Getty Images

Tim Kaine and Mike Pence sparred repeatedly over the legacy of the Iraq War during the Vice Presidential Debate on Tuesday night, with Pence blaming the rise of ISIS on Hillary Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State.

A heated discussion about Iraq first erupted during the opening minutes of the debate, when Pence said that because President Obama could not negotiate an agreement with the Iraqi government to allow U.S. troops to stay in place there, Iraq was “overrun by ISIS.”

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Kaine pointed out that the so-called Status of Forces Agreement was negotiated by the Bush administration years earlier -- in 2008 -- and set a deadline for U.S. troops to leave Iraq by the end of 2011. Obama administration officials sought to negotiate a new deal, but negotiations broke down over the question of whether US troops could be prosecuted under Iraqi law.

“Iraq didn’t want our troops to stay, and they wouldn’t give us protection for our troops,” Clinton's running mate said.

“It was a failure of the Secretary of State,” Pence replied.

Later, Pence said that the departure of U.S. troops from Iraq created a vacuum, and ISIS “was able to be literally conjured up out of the desert.”

The exchanges indicate how the Iraq War, which in 2002 both Clinton, then in the Senate, and Pence, then in the House, voted to authorize, hangs over the 2016 race.

The actual history is complicated. During a ceremony in Baghdad in mid-December 2011, the U.S. military declared an end to operations in Iraq. Later that month, a convoy of US military vehicles made what was at the time called a final exit from the country. A period of relative quiet followed, but, by early 2014, Iraqi cities began falling to an Al-Qaeda offshoot group that most Americans had never heard of before: ISIS.

Some national security experts and retired military leaders have said that were the Obama administration to have left several thousand troops in place, the rise of the group might have been forestalled.

Retired General Michael Barbero, who ran the mission to train the Iraqi Army from 2009-2011, said during an interview in 2014 that US military leaders should have pushed the Obama administration harder to keep a residual force of 10,000 US troops in Iraq.

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“Absolutely, we all believe that,” he told NBC’s Chief Foreign Correspondent Richard Engel.

However, experts have also conceded that the Iraqi government did not appear prepared to negotiate a deal under the protections President Obama sought.

Regardless, the failure of the negotiations has opened an avenue for attacks on Clinton's legacy, as much as her defenders try to point to the history.

“Governor Pence doesn’t think the world’s going so well and he is going to say it’s everybody’s fault,” Kaine said early in the debate.

“Do you?” Pence shot back.